“For about $150, Sparki offers customers a pretty solid educational platform that they can use to learn a variety of important concepts in robotics and programming. Working through the online lesson plans, kids can be exposed to important ideas in robotics…and hone their coding skills at the same time.“
What We Like
What We Don’t Like
What is Sparki?
Sparki is an affordable, programmable robot for kids that is designed to help teach important concepts in coding and robotics.
Essentially, Sparki is a blank slate for kids to work with. The robot comes with all sorts of sensors ready to be used, kids just need to learn to program it and very soon they’ll have a robot they can set up to do pretty much whatever they want.
Because the real purpose with Sparki is learning how to program it, one thing you should note is that it isn’t a build it yourself robot. It comes pre-built and it isn’t too modular, meaning you can’t swap it around and reconfigure it or add aftermarket parts too easily.
That said, this allows Sparki to be used by younger or non-mechanically inclined kids who would probably have a hard time putting it together.
You can buy Sparki online for $149.99, which puts it in the mid-range of most robot kits out there and priced about right for a good quality Arduino kids robot kit.
What’s included in this robot kit?
When you buy Sparki, you’ll find pretty much everything you’ll need to get started, including:
- Remote control
- A fully assembled Sparki
- USB Connector
- Some paper mazes and lines to get you started
Oh, batteries. The bane of any electronic gadget.
Sparki does require 4 AA batteries (not included), which is a bit of a downside since it will go through them faster than a lithium ion battery back. However, it does support re-charchable batteries, which is good since it reduces waste and the need to buy new batteries.
Arcbotics made it pretty simple to replace the batteries, too. Pop the back off and just put them into the battery pack. There is no need for a screwdriver, so you won’t lose any parts – always a good thing.
What can Sparki do?
Sure with its white plastic body and two big binocular “eyes,” Sparki kind of looks like a Disney character or a retro robot from the 1980s.
But don’t let it fool you, a cute toy this is not.
Instead, Sparki is a pretty impressive educational platform for learning about robotics. Its two eyes are actually distance sensors, and the little white plastic body that fits so nicely in your hand is actually jam packed with various sensor modules that you can integrate into a wide variety of projects, including:
- Light sensors
- IR sensor & receivers
- And more
All this means that Sparki is built to be more or less a blank slate for kids to work with. As kids learn to program it, they can get Sparki to do pretty much anything, from following lines to going out, to grabbing objects with its front grips to scurrying around, finding and retrieving various objects.
In fact, in the Sparki lesson website, you can easily find a variety of ready-built activities to upload into the robot including:
- Teaching Sparki to run mazes
- Teaching Sparki to clean up
- Display custom messages on Sparki’s LCD screen
- Turn Sparki into a musical robot
- Get Sparki to draw simple drawings
- Get Sparki to navigate around rooms
- Run relay races
The best part about it is that not only will kids have a blast getting Sparki to do all these activities, they’ll also learn very important and widely used concepts in robotics. For example, the lesson in teaching Sparki to avoid smashing into walls so it can run mazes (edge avoidance- the same idea behind the tech that helps keep your car in its lane) will teach kids how infrared sensors work, how they’re used, and the programming logic behind them.
One thing we really liked is the remote control that comes included. The infrared remote comes in handy if you want to demonstrate the capability of the robot to your kid, want to get it unstuck from somewhere or if you want to just play with it for a while. What’s also cool is that there are a number of projects online that can help kids learn to program the remote with custom functions
Overall, Sparki can do pretty much anything your imagination (and programming skill) can come up with. In addition to the dozens of lessons you’ll find for free on their website, there are a number of projects (especially on Github) that other people have posted online across the internet that you can download and experiment with, which is pretty cool.
That said, if you really want to come up with complicated tasks for it you will run into a downside:
Sparki has pretty limited memory – only about 2.5 KB (yes kilobytes) of ram and about 32 KB of storage. For basic and intermediate projects we don’t think you’ll have much issue, and they do have a lesson about turning off some features to free up space, but this lack of memory can be limiting in more complicated projects.
Overall, we’d say that Sparki would be a great robot for kids 11 and up, possibly younger if they have some prior experience in programming and electronics (or if you’re willing to help out).
The robot itself comes assembled straight out of the box, so there’s no worry about a child not being able to assemble it or breaking something in the process, and the open nature of it lets kids explore and do anything they want. They can even just enjoy the robot by using its remote control if they want to.
Coding-wise, kids have their choice between block code and C++, which means it’s great for both experienced coders and kids starting out.
That said, the learning lessons are in depth and discuss a variety of concepts in electronics and programming that might fly over the heads of younger kids or may frustrate them with their slow, careful and step by step nature. In addition, it has some exposed circuitry and may be a little too delicate for younger kids.
Not only will Sparki teach your kids some cool stuff about electronics and robotics, but they will get some good hands on experience coding as well. After all, it is a programmable robot kit.
Sparki supports two programming languages.
The first is a block-code program designed for Arduino kits called Minibloq. If you’re familiar with scratch, it’s pretty similar – basically it lets kids build programs by putting blocks of code together like a puzzle. This lets kids learn essential programming logic and structure without having to worry too much about syntax, compiling errors and so on.
If your child is more experienced with programming, they can also learn to use Arduino C/C++ code to create programs in the Sparkiduino environment and really open up the possibilities for coding.
Either way, we like the idea that Sparki can grow with your child, they can start with simpler projects in block coding and move onto Arduino C++ and make use of the more sophisticated projects that can be easily found online.
Now, unfortunately, unlike some other robots in the space there is no official app for Sparki yet that will let you control it from a tablet or phone. The process feels a bit outdated and clunky, uploading code from a computer via USB and may be a little annoying to kids of the smartphone generation. There are some 3rd party apps that users have uploaded to app stores like Google Play, but they’re not official and you should always be careful when downloading them.
It also should be noted that it took us a little bit of time to get used to the interface, especially finding all the necessary blocks and functions in Minibloq. With younger kids you might want to work with them at first so they get familiar with the environments.
That said, Arcbotics’ lessons are extensive, highly educational and free so there is no lack of support and documentation to help you figure things out.
So, Is Sparki Worth it?
Overall, we think Arcbotics Sparki is worth its price.
For about $150, Sparki offers customers a pretty solid educational platform that they can use to learn a variety of important concepts in robotics and programming. Working through the online lesson plans, kids can be exposed to important ideas in robotics (computer vision, edge detection, sorting) and hone their coding skills at the same time.
Sparki is also capable of growing alongside your child, going from simpler block programming projects to more sophisticated Arduino C/C++ coding, and will therefore be useful for far longer than more simple, single function robot kits.